As understatements go it was a good one. “It would have been much better if there had been engagement….with devolved administrations ahead of this announcement” said Nichola Mallon referring, with impressive restraint, to the announcement by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps that face coverings would be compulsory on public transport in England from 15th June. Most people would assume that speaking to the other three Transport Ministers before announcing a significant change in policy was not only good manners but essential if implementing a coordinated and successful exit from the Lockdown.
Not that this was a one-off, the Tory Government have form on this. The letter advising people shielding at home for the past twelve weeks that they could now leave the house was dispatched without notifying doctors. Many GPs learnt about the development when patients rang asking for further advice. Not ideal.
Face masks have become part of the culture war between Republicans and Democrats in the USA. On this side of the Atlantic, we like to think that we are less ideological, more guided by the science; and the science has been evolving. Our knowledge about Covid 19 has rapidly expanded over the past six months. The evidence supporting the wearing of face coverings has become stronger. It is possible to be infectious while still having no symptoms and this is where face coverings come into their own. A three-layered textile face mask is pretty darn good at stopping you spreading the virus if you are one of those infected but symptomless individuals. This is particularly important in confined spaces and over a time period greater than ten minutes, for example during a journey on public transport.
But face coverings are not without their downsides. For the hearing impaired who lip-read there is an obvious problem. And wearing them may create complacency and carelessness regarding other safety measures. They also interfere with communication. Facial expressions are an enormously important part of our interactions and facilitate good communication. The stress associated with zoom meetings is partly because we need to concentrate so intently on reading facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation. Good communication is necessary for good government, safe communities and healthy relationships. Connectedness is integral to human flourishing and with the increasing atomisation of society utilizing every means of communication becomes important in order to help people connect.
The coronavirus epidemic has shown that, in the face of a common enemy, our politicians can work together pretty well, despite the occasional Shinner being unable to resist the temptation to break lose and, predictably, blame Britain. After more than two years of not speaking to each other they discovered the benefits of better communication and that working together can deliver for the people (which after all is what politicians are supposed to do). Is it wishful thinking to hope that this might continue?
So next time I travel on a glider I will don my face covering, all be it reluctantly. And I will encourage others to do likewise while the virus is still circulating in the community. But I will look forward to the day when we all, politicians included, communicate clearly face to face, knowing that good conversations are necessary for a healthy democracy.
Dr John Kyle, recently retired from General Practice in East Belfast, is a member of Christian Fellowship Church and a Councillor on Belfast City Council representing the Progressive Unionist Party.